The link between health and wealth has never been stronger as more data continues to show greater longevity and wellness among the affluent. Now, scientists say high debt is affecting the health of younger adults as stress from finances raises diastolic blood pressure with lowered self-reported measures of physical and mental health.

Although previous studies had linked debt to adverse psychological health, researchers are now finding evidence of adverse effects on physical health. Young adults aged 24 to 32 with high debt had higher diastolic blood pressure than others, researchers from Northwestern University and McGill University found last year after analyzing data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The paper, published last August in the journal Social Science & Medicine, warns that debt-related stress may affect the future health of younger adults burdened with student loans and consumer debt.

“We now live in a debt-fueled economy,” lead researcher Elizabeth Sweet said in a press statement. “Since the 1980s, American household debt has tripled. It’s important to understand the health consequences associated with debt.”

Personal Debt Raises Blood Pressure Among Young Adults
Young adults carrying personal debt are more likely to develop hypertension, a worrying portent for the future health of millions. Image courtesy of DebtConsolidation.Com

Those with higher debt were found to have a 1.3 percent higher diastolic blood pressure reading, Sweet said. A rise of just two percent in diastolic blood pressure is associated with a 15 percent heightened stroke risk, with hypertension risk rising by 17 percent. Moreover, people living with debt are three times more likely than others to suffer from mental illnesses, with depression symptoms worsening 14 percent for every 10 percent increase in personal debt.

In the study, Sweet and her colleagues measured personal debt in two ways, asking about debt as well as debt-to-asset ratio — a basic financial concept many young adults might find confusing. “Suppose you and others in your household were to sell all of your major possessions [including your home], turn all of your investments and other assets into cash, and pay off all of your debts. Would you have something left over, break even, or be in debt?”

Among young adults in the longitudinal study, personal debt loads varied from less than $1,000 to more than $250,000.

“You wouldn’t necessarily expect to see associations between debt and physical health in people who are so young,” Sweet said. “We need to be aware of this association and understand it better. Our study is just a first peek at how debt may impact physical health.”

Ironically, recent studies support the efficacy of “retail shopping” for lowering feelings of sadness, although the behavior itself often reinforces the problem with a spiraling of the root problem — debt. According to, the average American carrying debt owes $15,191 to credit card issuers, $154,365 for a home mortgage, and another $33,607 for student loans.

Source: Sweet, E., Nandi, A., Adam, E.K., et al, The high price of debt: household financial debt and its impact on mental and physical health. Social Science & Medicine. 2013.